MINNEAPOLIS — For the third time this season, Litchfield got the best of Minnewaska in a head-to-head battle.
The Dragons utilized a clean sweep in singles competition to advance to the Class A state semifinals for the second year in a row Tuesday from the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center. But unlike what the eventual 6-1 result might suggest, Litchfield’s triumph was anything but easy.
The victors outlasted the Lakers through three, closely contested, three-set matches at the top of the lineup. Fighting tooth-and-nail during its quarterfinal match, Litchfield will meet four-time defending state champion Blake for a spot in the state finals at 10 a.m. Wednesday..
"Well, I always think the first match is always the hardest match to play, because a lot of the girls haven't for almost two weeks, so it's a struggle," Litchfield head coach Matt Draeger said. "You have to be sharp, but the same holds for Minnewaska. I just thought Minnewaska played outstanding and I thought our girls had to fight and compete to hold them off. ... I thought our girls played their best when the chips were down today, and I thought that was key for us."
In a battle of top singles players that lasted more than two hours, Dragons junior Avery Stilwell jumped out to a 3-0 advantage and enjoyed as much as a 5-2 lead during the first set against Lakers senior Danielle Thorfinsson. However, Stilwell began to struggle, giving away points with her serve. In the blink of an eye, Thorfinnson surged ahead by taking the next four games.
"I was feeling super good in the first three games, I just kept hitting my shots and all of the sudden, she just kept coming," Stilwell said. "I was like: ‘Oh my gosh, this is getting closer. I have to wake up.’ I just kept trying, but I felt down for the last few games. I just needed to get it going.”
Stilwell recovered, tying the frame at 6-6 before winning a set tiebreaker when Thorfinnson smacked a backhand shot into the net. The Minnewaska senior rebounded to take the second set 6-3, but another errant backhand ended the deciding set in favor of Stilwell 6-4.
“It was kind of disappointing, but it was a tough match and she’s a good player,” Thorfinnson said. “I started hitting better and more consistently. I started off really rusty.”
Senior Alyssa Ross, sophomore Elise Bierbaum and freshman Ryanna Steinhaus each collected quick straight-set wins. The trio accounted for Litchfield’s first three wins of the day and when the team of Britney Prahl and Kylie Michels squeaked by Annika Randt and Addy Randt 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, the Lakers earned its date with Blake.
"We don't take Blake any different than Minnewaska or anyone," Draeger said. "We try to take every match one at a time and focus on that one match. If you don't focus on that one match, you are cheating yourself a little bit. So we are going to go after Blake the best we can and see what happens."
Minnewaska put up its best effort in doubles competition. In a battle of top doubles teams, the duo of senior Greta Reichmann and Alissa Thorfinnson clung onto a 5-4 lead in the third set of their match, but lost the last three games to seniors Vaida Behnke and Neriah Lara.
Lakers sophomore Olivia Richards and Maddie Thorfinnson collect the team’s quarterfinal tally, moving past Kelsey Ballard and Taylor Draeger in straight sets.
“We tried to go strong in doubles and get them in No. 1 singles,” Minnewaska head coach Tara Reichmann said. “We had a close match with their No. 1 singles earlier in the year and we were hoping that maybe we could pull through with that match and get the doubles. We won one of the doubles and we went three sets in the other two doubles, so I guess it was our best chance and a good decision. ... The scoreboard does not show the match. It was 6-1, but it was a lot tighter than that.”
Minnewaska plays in the consolation championship match at noon Wednesday at noon after defeating Thief River Falls, 4-3.
Making its first trip to the state tournament since 2003, New London-Spicer kicked off the day’s action, falling 6-1 to Pequot Lakes. Later in the afternoon, the Wildcats dropped their consolation semifinal to Blue Earth Area, 5-2.
“We were proud to be here and just proud of how the girls played,” Wildcats head coach and Section 5A Coach of the Year Beth Pederson said. “Today during these matches, the girls fought hard and put up a good battle.
Sophomore No. 2 singles player Izzy Schmiesing captured wins in each of her two matches while the doubles team of Megan Warner and Ashley Templer were also victorious. Although the wins didn’t help the team advance, they still served a great significance.
Early in the season, April Groff, NLS’s No. 3 singles player, was ruled out for the rest of her senior campaign due to a torn ACL. The rest of the players rallied around their fallen teammate, setting their sights on the 100-win mark through the year.
Entering the state tournament, the Wildcats were just short of the goal. With their three wins on Tuesday, they surpassed it.
“It makes me cry, but it fills my heart and although I can’t play, it makes me feel like I’m an equal part of the team,” Groff remarked.
“It was definitely a big inspiration for us when we’d sit there at our benches and be like, ‘We’re losing this match right now, but we can come back and win it for April,’” senior Taylor Barber said. “It gave us a nice push throughout the season, and at the end of the season now, to see that we reached 100 wins for her and to see her happy, it makes us happy.”